The New Fatherhood
The New Fatherhood
Burning Out with Brad Stulberg

Burning Out with Brad Stulberg

TNF Podcast #003: Internal scorecards, practising vulnerability, and raising empathetic kids

Feeling tired? Of course you are. If you’re reading this, chances are you are on the hook for the survival, relentless feeding, cognitive development and creation of a loving environment for at least one small child. And it doesn’t let up. Becoming a parent means signing up for half a decade—at least—of being completely exhausted. That’s the deal. You exchange the golden trifecta of guaranteed sleep, disposable income and free time for cuddles, cuteness, and carrying on the human race—or at least the part of it that contains 50% of your genes.

“You will be tired,” I tell folks contemplating becoming parents. “All the time.” You may find yourself living with kids, and you may find yourself comprehending what the human body is capable of: both the miracle of a tiny person growing inside the womb before making its entrance into the world; and then how strangely effective you can be after only three hours of sleep, every night, for an entire year.

It would be ideal if we could raise children with the focus and attention they deserve. But life must go on, and unlike generations gone by—where an entire ecosystem of support would come together to help you through those first few years—more and more of us are out on our own, trying to raise families whilst holding down stressful jobs in what continues to be—damn you, global pandemic and recession knife-edge—unprecedented times.

Whilst burnout once lacked a universal definition, the literature has recently aligned upon “a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.” It has undoubtedly been in your orbit even if you haven’t been dealing with it yourself. During the last few years I was at Google, it seemed like someone from my team disappeared every few months—bodies and brains collapsing under sustained stress, unsupported structures finally caving in on themselves. “Pressure makes diamonds!” one VP used to tell our team. Sure—but all the best diamonds were formed a billion years ago, under conditions you wouldn’t subject your worst enemy to, and they’ve been causing pain and suffering ever since.

The pressures of work, the relentless requests of a tiny child, and society's expectation of us being able to navigate this with ease, put parents at increased levels of strain they end up taking out on each other. I wanted to dive further into this topic and better understand where burnout and parenting overlap, so I contacted one of the world’s leading experts on the subject: Brad Stulberg, author of The Practice of Groundedness, Peak Performance and the recent book Master of Change which was released earlier this month.

Brad. Thanks for finding the time to talk. You research, write and coach on peak performance and the dangers of burnout. What got you started in this space?

I grew up very much involved in athletics and sport, so performance was always a big part of my life and trying to get the most out of myself. In the sports I competed in, genetically, I was like a 70 percentile, 60 percentile—better than average, by no means near the top, but good enough to get into the arena. And then it was trying to figure out how to make myself better. So, from a young age I was always interested in “How do you get the most out of yourself?” And I was also always a workhorse. So first in the gym, last out of the gym, love the grinds. That was me growing up.

And that translated well into a job at a place like McKinsey, which is basically like being an intellectual workhorse, and so many people that go into those jobs just wanting to grind and thinking that you can constantly go to the well. About two years in, I started to feel pretty burnt out. In hindsight, I'd say it wasn't severe burnout—now that I have written and researched people going through that. I wasn't physically ill, but I had trouble sleeping, cold hands and feet, in a locked-in mode.

I had always wanted to go back to graduate school, mainly because I wasn't convinced that I was going to be a consultant forever. I was very interested in public health, so I went and did a master's in it. Around that time, I got very much into triathlon and endurance sports. So I had this performance project on one hand and a health study on the other, and that really set the stage for me to interweave these two things—to start thinking about health and well-being not as the absence of disease but as thriving. Because I was soaking in all this information on what it means to be healthy, how systems can be healthy, and how societies can be healthy—whilst training 20 hours a week for a triathlon. That set me up to start integrating these things in my writing and out in the world. If there's a Venn diagram between performance and well-being, I try to sit in the middle of those.

It's taking what you learn from physical exercise and physical wellbeing—the idea of rest days and when to push yourself—but then coming back and applying it to your professional life. We don't give ourselves enough opportunities for rest and relaxation.

I think this is also a big part of the practice of groundedness around not thinking of work-life balance but instead “work-life harmony,” or an integration of the two. That doesn't mean there should be no boundaries, because that's where many people struggled during the pandemic. It's “I'm home, I'm at work. I'm one and the same.” But when it comes to where you derive your value from, it's “I'm this professionally, I'm this at home, and these are my hobbies.” How can you tell a story about yourself that integrates those things?

I spent time working on this with a coach back in 2016. I had just moved to the US, was seven years into my time at Google, and was very unsure about what was coming next and who I was outside of work. “Purpose” became something that my coach and I kept returning to. One revelation for me was that I'd always assumed that “purpose” was a switch, and everything would be good if it was flicked on. And I realised purpose is more like a bucket you can fill from many different pipes. And trying to get an extra 10% out of the “work” pipe is much harder than filling the whole thing with family, writing, or hobbies. It was a huge unlock.

I think about diversifying my sources of meaning and identity. A father and husband are a big part of it. As an athlete, I still strength train relatively seriously. And I love dogs, so I'm big into my German Shepherd. So not having your identity too tangled up in any one thing is important.

I’ve seen it change with men I know who would have once defined themselves by their jobs, but working from home and having the kids around changes that dynamic significantly. But with the increasing rates of burnout, people are working, working, working, and they don't have anything left in the tank to search for other places they might find more meaning.

Exactly. Or they over-index work, and when things are going well, they feel great, but when things aren't, they feel terrible. And that's an exhausting emotional rollercoaster to be in.

You were at McKinsey. I was at Google. These high-performance environments clearly contribute to burnout: quarterly goals, employee stack ranking, performance-based compensation. The idea of being constantly pushed and measured leads to chasing the wrong metrics, with zero-sum games that trap people into bad habits and behaviours. What can people do if they find themselves in similar situations?

I like to think of this as external dashboards and internal dashboards. Those things on your external dashboards are very ubiquitous in society. They're easy to pay a lot of attention to, and they're very easy to connect your self-worth and emotions to. So, how can we shift to more of an internal dashboard? Knowing your core values, trying to show up and practice them, because those are always in your control. So what are those values, how do you define them, how do you show up, and either live in alignment with them or not? That's your internal dashboard. You can do that. And if you're doing that well, the research is incontestable that regardless of what's happening on external dashboards, you feel better and don't have this cognitive dissonance.

When you think about your own experience as a father, what kinds of things are you tracking on your internal dashboard?

Presence is a big one—thinking about presence not as willpower but as creating the boundaries and the conditions to be present. Leaving the phone upstairs when you go into the basement playroom. Not bringing it into the kids' bedroom. Going out to lunch … so much is just leaving the phone behind. Because if the phone's there, it's cocaine for a lot of people, and particularly with a young kid—a two-year-old is boring, and it's really easy to look at that phone. But a two-year-old is going to think, “Why is dad always looking at the phone?”

Patience—the notion of a good enough parent comes up, which is what Donald Winnicott, the psychotherapist in the 20th century, talked about: the goal of parenting is just to be good enough. You don't want to be a helicopter parent, and you don't want to be a perfectionist, because you'll burn out and your kid will have all kinds of issues. On the other hand, you don't want to be neglectful, but you want to create a safe holding environment for your kid to blossom. If they get out of that environment you want to nudge them back in—and that requires a lot of patience, to step back and let things unfold.

I think vulnerability is obviously something to role model and talk to your son or daughter about in age-appropriate language. My son turned four in February and he's going through a big death phase: “Is that bird dead? Is Grandma dead? When are we gonna die?” And really trying to hold that space and have an actual conversation—to be vulnerable about death and what that means to you as an adult in an age-appropriate way.

Do you see burnout more amongst those raising kids?

“It depends,” is the short answer. So if I were to separate into two broad paths, I think having kids is great anti-burnout medicine for some people because it throws any sense of control into relief, and whatever bullshit happens at work is just bullshit because you already dealt with a toddler having a meltdown that morning. So work is actually quite easy, and people with kids have an easier time just letting go and embracing the chaos.

With other people, it makes you more susceptible to burning out because you've got so much more on your plate. And I think that the bigger issue that a lot of my clients have— particularly those who are very involved parents, whether it's moms or dads—is feeling like they're never good enough at parenting and they're also never good enough at work. So they feel in this double bind where they can't give their all to anything and therefore don't feel good about anything.

There’s a need for men to become more open and vulnerable with each other, and there’s tension there in how we raise our own children—a wish to protect them from the horrors of the world, whilst simultaneously preparing them for it.

There are two broad cultural narratives, at least in the West, around masculinity. The dominant one is the tough “put on the mask” one. But in more progressive circles, there is this other emerging narrative: to let go of that totally, and that everything associated with it is toxic. I actually don't think that either of those narratives suffices. The way that I like to frame it is that—I say deadlift is a metaphor for anything—I want my kid to be able to deadlift 500 pounds and also cry in public. Because I think there's a part of how our species evolved where people of the male sex have greater levels of testosterone. These are undeniable things about science, where there is an urge to be strong, aggressive, and dominant. And I think that in trying to get rid of that urge, a lot of projection happens. But I think it's about embracing and channelling that while building up this other capacity to care and connect. So it's like a marriage of hard and soft. And I think that's the kind of masculinity that I aspire towards and want to teach my son.

In the self-help or popular science space—whatever you call that genre we exist in—there's a lot of getting attached to any one given tool. And I think all these concepts are tools you put on a toolkit. Then wisdom is knowing when to apply the right tool—because grit is great, unless it's time to quit. Then, as a father, how do you develop a broad toolkit of these concepts at more than a surface level? So that you can also start to become aware of when it makes sense to use them and in what circumstances.

You have a child and embark on a project that is at least 18 years long—if not longer. I often talk to my daughter about how she can become aware of her emotions, be mindful of her feelings, and to sometimes take a step back from them and not react immediately. I told her, “It's really good that you understand this. Most adults haven’t figured it out yet.” It's a gift to be able to give it to kids at this age.

And a lot of it comes back to this notion of patience and being good enough. And there's research that supports this: the best way to have kids engage in this stuff is to give them the space to do it. So it's not about sitting down with your kid and saying, “Let's talk about vulnerability.” It's playing Lego with your kid for an hour without distractions, and then 40 minutes in, your kid will ask: “Dad, why don't you cry and mom cries?” That's when those kinds of questions come up.

That one's not a problem in my house. The running joke in our house is any movie now gets me going. After my second was born, I had paternal postnatal depression. And in getting through it—through therapy, exercise, meditation and more—I thought a lot about how I’d opened up an empathy valve, and that wasn’t something that could easily be closed.

I'm asked that often—do you have to go through suffering to be able to teach it? And I think probably to some extent, but I don't think it's all or nothing. So I think even someone who's never experienced depression or never experienced loss can still set the stage to parent in a way that is empathetic and vulnerable. But then I think if you do go through something like this, as you mentioned, it does break open the empathy valve and the compassion valve. The root of compassion is co, which means “with,” and passion is “to suffer”.

And I had no idea I would feel this way. It’s only because it was my second, and I knew this wasn’t a “normal” way to feel, that made me question it.

The best advice I got before my first son was born was from my friend Adam, who told me, “You cannot know what you will feel when your kid is born.” Some dads feel ecstatic—they're immediately in love with their kid. Some look at their wives, and they say, “I don't know what you're feeling, but I am not feeling that, and there's this gross little alien, I don't know what to do with it, and I don't feel attached to it.” And that's okay, too.

I think a lot of suffering occurs in dads when they expect to immediately feel attached and in love with their kid—they tell themselves this huge story of what it's going to be like, and then it's not. And then not only do they not feel that, but they judge themselves and think that they're broken, or something's wrong with them because they don't feel that.

That was the best advice I got because I did not feel too attached. I knew in advance I didn't like babies going in. I just don't like babies. I thought I'd like my own, but my attachment to my son didn't start until he was two. In a way that was anything other than out of obligation. And now he's like my little best friend, sidekick. I'd step in front of a train for him.

Research shows that when you ask parents to think about life after their child is born, women will talk about the child as a baby, whereas dads will often go three to four years ahead and talk about playing football together or in the park.

Again, these are patterns that evolved over millennia. Even with as much skin time as one can have, which is good, undoubtedly, you're never going to feel what a woman feels when breastfeeding, when she's just given birth, when she smells her baby for the first time. These are chemical—you can't, and you don't. And I think that a lot of these conversations get pushed under the rug when it's a disservice. It would do men a lot of help to be like, “Hey, just be patient. It's okay. If you're not feeling the love and connection, show up for your wife and love her, and just be patient and see what happens.” And I'm forever grateful that Adam told me that because that was my experience. It was hard, but I didn't judge myself for it.

Note: This interview was originally recorded in 2022 whilst Brad was working on the book that would eventually become Master of Change. If you’d like to hear him talk more about that book you can listen to him talk with Rich Roll (who is much better at this podcasting lark than I.)

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The New Fatherhood
The New Fatherhood
"Like one big group text with other guys fumbling their way through fatherhood."
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